One thing Duke could always count on was its kick down the stretch. The past two seasons, though, the Blue Devils had clearly lost their legs, going 14–13 (.519) after Jan. 31 and 4–6 in March. March? That was the month that made Coach K. A worn-out core of young ones was mostly to blame: Duke relied heavily on freshmen and sophomores, and they broke down under the weight of those major, high-pressure minutes. The grind particularly ran down forward Kyle Singler last season. After his PT spiked in late January, his stats took a dive as he averaged 9.6 ppg on 33.8% FG in the team's final eight games after going for 14.4 on 49.3% FG previously. Now Singler is a focal point of the Devils' offense, so that kind of drop-off will not do. To save their lagging pins, the Devils scaled back a grueling summer running regimen. "We've changed the way we train so we can be our freshest in March," says junior G Jon Scheyer. Now that sounds like the Dukies we know.
Smith feeds Scheyer on the right wing, then cuts to the opposite corner. Singler sets a ball screen for Scheyer and then chooses between two reads. If his man hedges too far to the middle, Singler can slip the screen and cut to the rim. Otherwise, he pops to the corner, where it's tough for bigger defenders to chase him.
• WAKE FOREST
[Jan. 28, Feb. 22]
The deep, physical Deacons knocked off the Devils by 13 last February and once again have serious inside threats in James Johnson, Chas McFarland and Al-Farouq Aminu.
• CLEMSON [Feb. 4] The Tigers mix a frantic motor with Trevor Booker's muscle, and they will be oozing confidence after downing Duke in last year's ACC tourney.
In 2006-07, the Boilermakers increased their wins by 13. Last season, they upped them by three more. That's fitting, because threes were key to their success. Purdue's 39.6% 3FG topped the Big Ten; so did the 151 it made. A trio of its finest launchers return to fill 'er up again. Junior Keaton Grant (44.0% 3FG) is Purdue's most seasoned sniper, but supersophs E'Twaun Moore (43.4% 3FG) and Robbie Hummel (the preseason pick for conference POY) will do more than their share to keep D's honest. And none of these guys has to toe the arc to reach the rim, so the new line will mean just one fewer dribble. With Purdue's motion offense swirling efficiently around them, the Boilermakers could easily bomb their way to their first Big Ten crown since 1996. Then again, if somehow the flood of threes is stifled, Purdue may be in a bit of a bind. It was ninth in the conference in rebounds, and that wasn't just because it had so few misses.
Grant dishes to Moore on the wing, then sets a weak-side screen for Kramer, who cuts to the rack. Meanwhile, Hummel screens for Johnson before flashing to the ball. Moore will feed either Johnson or Hummel, who will: a) look for a cutting Kramer, b) shoot or c) kick it out for a three.
• MICHIGAN STATE
[Feb. 17, March 7]
G Travis Walton
is an All-Big Ten defender on a team that held Purdue to 29.6% from the perimeter last season. And Izzo's squads are always hell on the boards (36.9 rpg, second in the Big Ten).
• WISCONSIN [Jan. 11, 27] Stingy Joe Krabbenhoft & Co. let opponents shoot just 31.3% from beyond the arc, second best in the Big Ten.
Critics have every right to harp on the Tigers' shooting woes; you can't make just 27% from downtown in a
national championship game and not hear about it forevermore. Memphis, though, has every right to rebut with this: At least we make sure our opponents don't do any better. Coach Cal's team has led C-USA in three-point defense for three seasons running, holding foes to a combined 30.5% from deep over that span. Everyone knows the only thing more indigenous to Memphis than on-ball D is future pros. So while last year's backcourt of Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts is now in the NBA, bigs Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart have stuck around to be the first to welcome G Tyreke Evans, another dribble-driving one-and-done wonder. As for maintaining that D, senior G Antonio Anderson (the team's best man-to-man man) offers continuity on the perimeter and a mentor for frosh Wesley Witherspoon, the next arc shark in line.
Kemp dribbles down the right wing and hands off to Evans. If Evans' defender goes under Kemp, he spots up for a three-pointer. If the defender stays with him, Evans can use a high pick from Taggart to free himself, knowing he also has Anderson and Dozier as options on the opposite wing.
[Jan. 17, Feb. 26]
Already on criminal probation, preseason C-USA POY Robert Vaden was
recently busted for public intoxication. But with him on the court, UAB is Memphis' biggest league threat.
• UTEP [Feb. 21] If anyone can figure out the Tigers D, it's Tony Barbee and his assistant Milt Wagner. Both worked under Calipari at Memphis.
Mountaineers fans are still mourning the loss of beloved Joe Alexander, the do-it-all forward who bolted for the NBA. But when they snap out of it, they'll realize that it's PG Darris Nichols' graduation that creates the trickiest void. WVU averaged a Big East-best 4.5 fewer turnovers per game than opponents, and in whose able mitts did the rock reside most often? How sure-handed was Nichols? The guy had no turnovers in 13 of his games last year. The battle to replace him is between junior Joe Mazzulla and frosh Darryl "Truck" Bryant. Mazzulla has been a solid backup, but Bryant, the all-time leading scorer at legendary St. Raymond High in the Bronx, has star power. And without Alexander, this team could use some of that. Whichever point gets the nod will be looking for 6'9" frosh F Devin Ebanks. His athleticism and size will create mismatches all over the floor. Bryant and Ebanks for Alexander—now, that's the kind of turnover even Coach Huggins can live with.
Mazzulla dribbles, Ebanks hits the right block, and Proby rotates to the wing. Mazzulla feeds Proby and cuts through the lane while Proby looks to feed Ebanks in the post. If he's covered, Proby can reverse to Ruoff, who will move from the left wing through the lane to the top of the key. When he does, Ebanks will try to get into the lane for an entry pass.
• SETON HALL [Jan. 3]
The Pirates' TO differential of 3.3 a game was third in the Big East, and their sticky starting PG, junior Eugene Harvey, is still around.
• VILLANOVA [Feb. 13] The Wildcats forced 16.4 turnovers a game last season on their way to
the Sweet 16, and they return all five starters (including 2006-07 ROY Scottie Reynolds).
The Longhorns aren't afraid to floor it; they averaged 75.5 ppg and lots of hoops on the run. So those 9.4 turnovers per—fewest in D1—is stunningly impressive. But impeccable break leader D.J. Augustin has been seduced by NBA riches, which means the Horns he's left behind are on their own. It shouldn't matter all that much. Texas limits its turnovers by keeping the offense simple. Players are encouraged to let fly early and often rather than waiting for the perfect look, and that goes right to combo guard A.J. Abrams' strength. Ostensibly, he'll run the show, but mostly that means more court time and more looks in transition. Glue guy Justin Mason and Turkish import Dogus Balbay, who missed last season with a knee injury, will help with the more mundane ballhandling chores. And the three of them might get a boost from J'Covan Brown, a 6'2" slasher who has yet to qualify academically. UT isn't counting on him, but he could be a gift that keeps on giving well into the new year.
Abrams (acting as the point) takes the ball from above the right wing to the middle of the floor, as Atchley cuts hard from the left wing to set a ball screen for him. After dribbling off the screen, Abrams' choice is simple: take the shot or feed a cutting Atchley.
• OKLAHOMA STATE
[Feb. 10, 28]
The Cowboys' 24% defensive turnover percentage (TOs/possessions), led by Byron Eaton (2.1 spg), topped the conference, according to kenpom.com.
• NEBRASKA [Feb. 7] G's Cookie Miller (1.9 spg) and Ryan Anderson (1.4) were both top-10 Big 12 thieves, and both are back to torment the Horns. Abrams was 1-for-5 from deep.
No three-guard combo in college hoops is more lethal than the one Marquette puts on the floor each night. Jerel McNeal, Dominic James and Wesley Matthews accounted for more than half the team's points last season and will almost surely do better than that this time. So when coach Tom Crean left for Indiana, he figured the squad was in good hands—all six of them. If only the Golden Eagles had a couple of more feet, or at least several inches. PF Lazar Hayward is the lone, proven interior offensive presence, and at 6'6", he will come up way short on many nights. To bolster the undersized lineup, the team does what it can to make offensive rebounding a priority for every position. And in fact, the lengthy guards (Matthews is 6'5", McNeal 6'3") did help the team snare 13.5 offensive boards per game, fourth in the Big East. If 6'10" freshman Chris Otule can make himself useful, that stacked backcourt may not have to do it all by itself.
Hayward sets a screen for James on the left wing. As James dribbles by, he has options: McNeal, who will move to the wing for a trey, and Matthews, who relocates to the right corner for a J. Meanwhile, Burke has wedged in the lane and Hayward has rolled to the rim to fight for a rebound.
• UCONN [Feb. 25]
The Huskies were third in D1 in boards per game a year ago, and, man, are they tall. They outrebounded Marquette by nine in their victory against them in January.
• Syracuse [March 7] The Orange whupped the Golden Eagles by 15 last season, and they return four starters, including F Arinze Onuaku, who grabbed 3.3 offensive boards a game.
Yeah, yeah, this is a football school, but before this particular group of Sooners is done, it just might have Norman going a little hoops crazy. Soph C Blake Griffin (14.7 ppg, 9.1 rpg) is one of the country's very best bigs. His teammates will feed him the rock down on the block as often as they can. Then, when D's collapse on Griffin, deep threat Tony Crocker (42.4% 3FG) will make them wish they hadn't. Add 6'9" UCLA transfer Ryan Wright and frosh wing Willie Warren, and all of a sudden you find yourself asking, "Wait, how can this team not win?" Well, if these Sooners want to conquer the Big 12 and beyond, they're going to have to play like the alpha dogs they should be. Boy, how they crumbled against other elites a season ago: They were 0–6 against Top 15 teams and not even close, losing by an average of 20.8 ppg. Griffin shunned the NBA once, but he probably won't again. The window that opens onto the Final Four is barely cracked.
Johnson passes to Crocker on the right wing. Wright screens for Griffin, who cuts across the lane to post up on the right block. Crocker looks to feed Griffin, who is in position for a good look. If the D collapses, Griffin has a trio
of shooters camped beyond the three-point line.
[Jan. 12, Feb. 21]
Losing to your rival three times in one season is no fun. Losing three times by 10 or more is a mental block.
• BAYLOR [Jan. 24, Feb. 11] The Bears, who lie on the cusp of our Top 16, return four starters, including all-conference G Curtis Jerrells, who dropped 29 on the Sooners in February.
Considering their whenever-they-feel-like-it shot selection, it's hard to believe the Deacons eked out even a 17–13 record last season. Coach Dino Gaudio trusts his bigs—all of them—to step out and shoot threes, but maybe he shouldn't. His blind faith contributed to a 48.5% effective FG, worst in the ACC. The stat derives from a kenpom.com formula—(.5 x 3FGM + FGM)/FGA—that puts extra weight on shots from downtown. Clearly, Wake's forwards think the same way. Top scorer James Johnson, a legit 6'9" forward, shot 28% from deep but still saw fit to hoist 100 attempts. You'd think the coach would tweak his belief system now that Johnson and fellow soph Jeff Teague are being joined by dynamic frosh wing Al-Farouq Aminu and 6'11" post banger Tony Woods. Gaudio is particularly excited about Woods' lane-filling swagger. At least he knows his place. Maybe he can put the other Wake bigs in theirs.
After Teague is fed by Smith on the right wing, Johnson sets a ball screen for him as McFarland screens for Aminu on the weak side. As Teague drives into the lane, he is free to look for his shot or kick out to either Aminu or Johnson (no!) beyond the three-point line.
• MARYLAND [March 3]
The Terps downed the Deacs twice last season, holding them to less than 38% shooting in each contest.
• CLEMSON [Jan. 17, March 8] Wake will remember the 19-point, 11-board command performance K.C. Rivers gave in an OT beatdown in January. But they shouldn't forget they shot 4-for-18 from deep.